There’s no question that Don Cheadle is one of the most interesting actors out there. The guy has such range and such charisma that we’re always collectively hoping someone will come along with a role that truly lets him shine. We saw it in Hotel Rwanda, which earned him an Oscar nomination, and we see it again in Talk to Me, Kasi Lemmons’ biopic of ‘60s era D.C. DJ Ralph “Petey” Greene, an ex-con, ex-addict who honed his skills in prison and took to the airwaves during the Civil Rights Movement. Cheadle chews every last little piece of fat and gristle out of the role, offering up a perceptive, sharp-nosed portrait that will almost undoubtedly garner him another nod. The rest of the movie, however, is mostly cobbled around him, hanging its wide-brimmed pimp hat on a clichéd script, and eventually fading away rather than going out with a bang.
Still, it’s almost worth it to see Cheadle cozied up to the microphone, unifying his listeners while trying to stay true to his roots. Talk to Me opens up in prison, where Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), visiting his brother, is accosted by the facility’s DJ, Petey. A suit-wearing radio executive, Dewey has nothing but contempt for the incarcerated, and though he tells Petey to give him a call when he gets out, he’s shocked when he actually shows up in his full velvet suit, along with his tarted-up honey, Vernell (Taraji Henson). But Dewey, a radio pragmatist, eventually puts him on the air, where he immediately says all sorts of things DJs aren’t supposed to say. Station owner E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen, who brings a degree of gravitas to the whole thing) pulls the plug, but Dewey works some magic to get him back in the studio, where he is eventually embraced by both commoner and power elite alike.
The picture tells its story through the back-and-forth friendship between Petey and Dewey, who wants to see his buddy create his own entertainment empire, pushing him to crossover to white audiences, molding Petey into the sort of performer he wishes he could be. But that’s not Petey’s style, and the battle for Petey’s image and integrity becomes the movie’s central conflict. Ejiofor brings a suave authority to Dewey, a dude from the projects who learned how to exist in white corporate America by watching his idol, Johnny Carson, night after night, so it’s only appropriate that one of the film’s real turning points takes place on The Tonight Show, a venue that has always been the pinnacle of Dewey’s existence.
But this is a film that has too many important moments happening across a pool table, too many ethical lapses that are played for laughs, too many sentiments dripping with saccharine. In his later years, Greene’s life kind of derailed as the spotlight faded, and in terms of Talk to Me, art imitates life. Once Greene steps away from the radio booth, the film, which uses historical milestones to put itself into context, especially the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., quiets down. Although Cheadle brings the pain and heartache, his fall from grace is mostly a slow slide into obscurity, and it just doesn’t make for great cinema. But Lemmons’ lucky to have a killer soundtrack made up of music of the day, and such talent in Cheadle and Ejiofor, who lend real depth to a project that, like the shock jocks that eventually evolved out of Petey Greene’s style of radio, is more style than substance.
TALK TO ME ( * * 1/2)
Directed by Kasi Lemmons. • Starring Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Martin Sheen. • R, 118 min. • At the Osio Cinemas.